Home | Opinion | Indigenous excellence: whole-of-university approach key
Dr Leanne Holt, pro-vice-chancellor (Indigenous) at Macquarie University. Photo: Supplied

Indigenous excellence: whole-of-university approach key

Aboriginal involvement in key decision-making areas is paramount for a whole-of-university approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander excellence, with the overall aim being shared responsibility and accountability across the whole university. Under-representation of Aboriginal peoples on high-level committees and in positions of influence is the norm in the tertiary sector.

Currently, there are 17 Indigenous pro-vice-chancellors and one deputy vice-chancellor position across the 38 Australian universities, mine being the most recent of these appointments.

Since the release of the Report of the Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People (the Behrendt report) in 2012, there has been a movement in Indigenous higher education in Australia that we haven’t seen since the 1980s. This includes the release of the first national Indigenous Strategy by Universities Australia in early 2017. The UA strategy, developed in collaboration with the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium (NATSIHEC), builds upon recommendations in the Behrendt report.

The strategy outlines ambitious targets related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student and staffing outcomes, Indigenous learning and teaching, research, and cultural safety. Both the UA strategy and the Behrendt report call for universities to engage a whole-of-university approach to advance Indigenous higher education, work that had previously been the sole responsibilities of Indigenous Education Centres (IECs).

Whole-of-university framework

Recently, I led the development of a report for a whole-of-university approach for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher education. The report identified seven key areas for an effective whole-of-university framework:

  1. Governance, strategy and leadership
  2. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander designated spaces
  3. Student and community engagement
  4. Learning and teaching, and research
  5. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce
  6. Appropriate resourcing and investment
  7. Culturally safe and responsive environments.

Macquarie University has taken giant steps in the past two years to demonstrate its commitment to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher education through a whole-of-university approach.

In 2016, after an extensive consultation process with internal and external communities, the 10-year Indigenous Strategy 2016–25 was launched, aligning to the institution’s visions and priorities.

The alignment of Indigenous strategic plans to universities’ strategic visions and aspirations enhances the implementation of programs and initiatives, informing appropriate resources. Several universities are moving towards a longer-term aspirational document that defines a whole-of-university approach, aligning this commitment to institutional key performance indicators to ensure progression and accountability.

Some universities, including Macquarie, have engaged with external bodies such as Reconciliation Australia to develop a Reconciliation Action Plan showing their commitment in a public forum and adding another level of external accountability. Importantly, if this is a chosen path, it must be driven by the senior executive of the university in collaboration with senior Aboriginal roles and does not replace the accountability for Indigenous outcomes within the core strategic planning of universities.

Top-down approach needed

The governance and leadership relating to a whole-of-university approach requires a top-down approach. The vice-chancellor must drive commitment and prioritise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher education, providing a strong foundation for the commitment to be reflected university-wide, becoming a part of its holistic DNA. Accountability must also come from this level and be driven down through faculties and operational units.

The appointment of Indigenous senior executive positions has been a positive step, providing opportunities to influence the high level strategic directions and decisions of universities. The challenge, however, is to ensure that all the accountability for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher education does not rest with the PVC/DVC (Indigenous). These positions form part of a broader university leadership, value-adding to the expertise and experiences of a university’s executive team.

However, the appointment of one senior position is not going to achieve a whole-of-university approach; although it will have an influence at an executive level, there will still be challenges infiltrating change at a faculty level and beyond.

If we look at current university models and structures related to learning and teaching or research, we already identify a holistic governance and leadership model that represents a whole-of-university approach. This model is primarily led by a PVC/DVC with a central expert group aligned. Associate deans with discipline-related knowledge are appointed in each faculty to drive the agendas from within. This model would also be effective for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher education: associate deans with discipline knowledge providing leadership within the faculties on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student and community engagement, workforce, Indigenous learning and teaching, and research, in collaboration with central IECs and PVC/DVC senior appointments.

The role of Indigenous Education Centres

IECs have long played a key role in moving forward higher education agendas within their institutions as well as nationally and internationally. Commonly they are left with immense responsibility and accountability to influence the universities’ Indigenous higher education strategies, often without the required resourcing or infrastructure. The future direction needs to value the contribution and expertise of these spaces but also ensure that senior leaders in government and universities share the responsibility and accountability. IECs should not be designed to replicate the services of the university and should not be compromised within a whole-of-university structure.

IECs provide a culturally affirming, intellectually engaging place of connection for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and staff. These spaces are also vital for developing community partnerships and relationships, identifying priorities, and responding to community-driven needs. Relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities are to be built on trust, respect and reciprocity.

Rethinking ‘student support’

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student and community engagement is critical to increasing the access, participation and success of Indigenous students at university. However, universities need to move beyond the traditional emphasis on ‘student support’. The language of student support has, over time, created a perception that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at university automatically require ‘student support’.

The associated stigma discourages students from accessing IECs. The language of ‘student and community engagement’ better reflects the needs of students to engage with individuals and communities drawing on common values, perspectives and knowledges. This includes academic engagement but also extends to cultural, emotional and social engagement, reflecting a holistic approach to the student experience.

A high number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are ‘first in family’ and find the university environment daunting, suffering from what has been coined the ‘imposter syndrome’.

Students identify having a ‘home away from home’ as a major contributor to their success, or even more importantly, feeling a ‘sense of belonging’ to a community where the knowledges and experiences they bring to their university journey are respected and cultivated. Student connection to community, country and culture is reinforced by the different priorities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in choosing tertiary studies.

Student feedback indicates a strong desire to give back and contribute to their communities, and unlike non-Indigenous students, this is prioritised over obtaining a good job or earning a high income. It is important for us to understand these differences when navigating what drives students to succeed at university.

Rethinking the Western notion of education

As a responsibility of universities to deliver global educational outcomes, there needs to be an understanding that there are multiple ways of knowing and doing across the world apart from the Western notion of education. Therefore, the embedding of Indigenous knowledges and perspectives across the learning and teaching and research areas are imperative to contribute to a global outlook.

Macquarie is committed to producing graduates that can demonstrate educational outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives and knowledges and the importance of these in both our nation’s history and future. Macquarie recently developed an Indigenous learning and teaching framework that demonstrates how Indigenous learning and teaching is embedded throughout the academic programs. Development, implementation and evaluation is in collaboration with appropriate Aboriginal voices, providing expertise on discipline-related or broader cultural contexts.

The continued under-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander postgraduate and research students in universities impacts the current challenges with meeting the supply and demand of Indigenous academic positions. Developing processes that pipeline students from undergraduate level to postgraduate opportunities and then into academic positions is a necessary strategy.

Academic leadership across disciplines is where universities need to be setting their visions, therefore commitments to building an academic workforce is vital. To achieve this, the attraction, retention and success of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher degree by research (HDR) students require attention as determined in the recent Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) report on Australia’s Research Training System.

National initiatives such as the National Indigenous Research and Knowledges Network (NIRAKN) have contributed strongly to this objective, providing mentorship, development and research leadership opportunities. However, there needs to be longer-term investment in this area. The appointment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff needs to be seen beyond an equity initiative; it needs to be recognised that Aboriginal people value-add to the university, bringing mainstream qualifications and knowledges, perspectives and experiences as an Aboriginal person to both Indigenous agendas as well as broader university strategies.

Cultural safety and responsiveness are paramount in the attraction and success of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and staff. A policy of zero tolerance to racism must be enforced to provide an effective learning environment for the benefit of all students, staff and communities.

Achieving a whole-of-university approach is not a complex feat; universities are already taking this approach with other core deliverables. The accountability and responsibility, however, must move beyond being driven by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, to being driven by a good university governance, leadership and accountability model. At Macquarie, we are fully committed to this agenda and are excited about the potential that lies ahead of us and the positive contributions we can make to our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, staff and communities, as well as our broader societies.

Dr Leanne Holt is a Worimi woman with further connections to Biripai country and over 20 years of higher education experience. She is pro-vice-chancellor (Indigenous) at Macquarie University, and deputy chairperson of NATSIHEC.

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